published about 1 hour ago
Summer days were made for getting outside and exploring. But don’t forget about the fun possibilities of outdoor summer nights! There is plenty to do after dark to capitalize on these long, warm days, especially if you head out to stargaze.
Not only are temperatures a bit cooler at night — and you can forego the sunscreen — but summertime’s dark skies open up a whole evening’s worth of entertainment, even if you live in a light-laden city. With little to no equipment and the right weather conditions, you can be well on your way to viewing the world beyond planet Earth while picking up a new hobby. I consulted with three experts who gave their take on how to stargaze from anywhere this season.
Use your senses — and your sense of adventure.
To start out stargazing, you really only need a night sky and your eyes. You can always level up your gazing by getting a telescope or binoculars if you want to make it a regular hobby. “Bring layers, good shoes, your internal compass, and a sense of adventure,” advises Alexandra Keeling, an outdoor adventure expert who works with WorldMark by Wyndham in Moab, Utah. She also adds that being spontaneous is key. “You never know what the skies will show you, so being open-minded and prepared are some of the best things for a good trip.”
Employ your peripheral vision.
It may seem counterintuitive, but sometimes viewing things head-on isn’t the only solution. “You can actually see more light through your peripheral vision,” reveals Kalpana Pot, who is a museum guide at the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. “The next time you’re outside, find an object in the sky, slightly look away, and it’ll appear brighter through your peripheral.”
Brian Lada is a digital journalist and meteorologist at AccuWeather who recommends downloading a few apps before you head out on your night sky excursion. Many weather and stargazing apps exist, such as AccuWeather, Stellarium, Star Walk, Google Sky Map, and Exoplanet. Pot also uses Stellarium — it’s free with both a desktop and mobile version — and adds SkySafari to her recommendations, even though it can cost anywhere from a few dollars up to $30, depending on your needs. “People who are astrophotographers generally use the most expensive version, but beginners who just want to learn about the sky can use the basic,” she notes.
When you’re out stargazing, don’t give up immediately if you don’t see a sky full of pinpointing light. Lada believes that if the conditions are right, the issue may be as simple as letting your eyes adjust to the dark. “People’s eyes can start adjusting to the dark in indoor areas within minutes of turning off the lights, but it may take as long as 30 to 45 minutes to adjust to the dark sky completely,” he says. Lada also recommends avoiding phone and flashlight use while gazing as it can change your night vision, although this can prove difficult if you’re using a stargazing app. “White and blue lights can affect your eyes, and you’ll have to readjust to the dark,” he warns.
Additionally, it takes time to recognize and remember constellations, so don’t pressure yourself or be disappointed if you can’t find notable stars on your first try. “To begin to understand the sky, all you need is to go outside, look up, and do it regularly,” Pot says. Not only will consistent gazing help you spot and recall the stars, but it will also help you observe how the sky changes seasonally. “You’ll see the constellations and planets change their position throughout the year,” adds Pot.
Getting a genuinely dark sky may be impossible where you live, especially if there is a lot of light pollution. But don’t discount stargazing as a hobby just because you don’t live rurally. “An ideal spot would be a dark place on high ground,” advises Lada. However, you can still look at and identify larger, brighter objects if you can’t find a dark sky. “Many big astronomy events centered around the moon or the planets can be seen from anywhere as these objects are typically bright enough to be seen even from the heart of a city despite the light pollution,” Lada explains.
Heading to a local green space can also help stave off light pollution. “A local park can be an ideal place for stargazing as they are usually darker than surrounding neighborhoods and are family-friendly,” says Lada. However, if you’re willing to forego some sleep, he has another creative solution. “The best time for stargazing from a city is during the second half of the night when light pollution is lower due to lower human activity.”
Check if the skies are clear.
Just like you can’t see the sun on an overcast day, clouds will also mask the stars at night, so plan to stargaze when the skies are cloud-free. Keeling says that weather can change quickly and recommends just looking up and gauging the sky to see the conditions. “If you can see clouds at sunset, it’s a 90 percent chance there will be clouds after sunset,” she says, adding that you can also consult websites to find the visibility. “You can also check online for the cloud cover percentage in your area.”
Other natural factors that will inhibit your stargazing efforts are the phase of the moon, humidity, and precipitation, so check your local weather and a moon phase app, such as My Moon Phase. “The light from the moon may sometimes wash out lights in the sky, so try to stargaze when it is in a crescent or gibbous phase or a new moon when the sky is at its darkest,” Lada advises, in conjunction with checking the weather forecast. “See whether clouds will be obstructing your view, if the humidity or air quality levels will haze over sky visibility, or if there is a potential storm headed your way.” If the conditions aren’t ideal, it’s best to schedule your viewing for another night.
Many stargaze simply to have a summer nighttime activity. However, the benefits of communing with nature at night go well beyond just having something to do. “Stargazing is educational, relaxing, and fun,” reminds Keeling, while also noting the hobby originally stems from the necessity of using the sky for navigation and travel. It’s also important to disconnect every once in a while, and stargazing can keep your mind occupied while discovering new things. “In this day and age, when everyone is constantly looking down at their devices, we forget that there’s a whole universe just above us,” says Pot. “There’s nothing more awe-inspiring than ultimately trying to find one’s place in space. It’ll surely change you.”